Author: Luisa Perkins
•3:00 PM
When Veronica Mitchell of Toddled Dredge proposed the theme for her blog carnival, "Before There Was Disney," I quickly signed up to participate. I chose to re-read The Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm, translated by Lore Segal and Randall Jarrell and illustrated by Maurice Sendak.

This book was a favorite of mine when I was young; my mother gave it to me on my tenth birthday. I read it, along with collections of Perrault, Hans Christian Andersen, and Oscar Wilde, over and over again. I treasure this canon of fairy and folk tales, drawing upon its themes and details often in my own writing.
When I was a child back in the mid-seventies, you could only see any given Disney cartoon about once every seven years in a movie theater (preferably a drive-in, with homemade treats, to save money). In one generation, the way children experience entertainment has changed radically. Kids today, mine included, can pop in a video or DVD on a whim and memorize a film through repeated viewings in close succession.

Patrick loves to quote The Brady Bunch Movie when Mike says, "You know, Cindy, when you tattle on your friends, you're really tattling on yourself." When it comes to fairy tales, this rule certainly applies.

I'm not a Disney-basher, but I do find it interesting to track the way The Big Mouse's storytelling has evolved, from the more or less faithful rendition of Snow White (1937), in all its grimness (pun intended); to the changing of the ending of The Little Mermaid (1989) from Andersen's tragic original; to the drastic morphing or outright invention of heroines like Princess Jasmine (1992), Fa Mulan (1998), and bran-new Princess Maddie (2008) for the sake of multiculturalism in recent years.


According to Disney, every girl should be able to identify with a Disney Princess, and since it's much harder to code-switch when experiencing a visual medium as opposed to a written, the princesses' physical characteristics assume paramount importance.


Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm were linguistics professors who contributed significantly to the first comprehensive German dictionary. Germany as we now know it did not exist then; after the fall of The Holy Roman Empire, that geographical area was divided into many small kingdoms and principalities. The Brothers Grimm gathered the folk tales that made up their famous collections (and conducted their groundbreaking research in the field of linguistics) in the early nineteenth century in an effort to help create a German identity. Contrary to popular myth, they did not go door to door, cottage to cottage to record the stories, but gathered them primarily from the middle class and aristocracy, who in turn had often heard the tales from their servants.


The stories themselves bear the hallmarks of a rich and diverse cultural imagination, but they also have much in common with one another. The reader finds strong Christian overtones throughout, and nearly every tale has a not very subtle moral. Goodness is rewarded; evil is punished harshly and unstintingly. The stories are grisly as a matter of course, a fact that can stun readers raised with post-Victorian notions of what childhood should be.


Modern readers who cringe at the ghastly particulars that adorn nearly every tale would do well to bear in mind that until very recently in human history, even very small children witnessed all kinds of 'PG-13' details in daily life. Animals were slaughtered; parents and siblings died. Rules of inheritance and birthright were inflexible and unforgiving. Food could be scarce, so every bit of offal was used and valued. Large families lived with almost no privacy in very tight quarters. Medical and surgical procedures were performed in the home, with highly inconsistent results. We take modern plumbing and hygiene for granted, but even the shoddiest gas station restroom would be a miraculous and relatively odor-free environment to a nineteenth-century observer.


For me, the darkness of the original tales adds to my enjoyment of them. They feel real, despite their fantastical and archetypal elements; the characters are human and three-dimensional in a way that those in Disney movies can never be. I like the Princess cartoons in the way that I like a bowl of Spaghetti-Os or a Hostess Cupcake. They are satisfying on a certain level. However, they bear little resemblance to the much more compelling source that spawned them; I would never confuse a serving of Chef Boyardee with a plate of homemade Spaghetti Bolognese, or a Hostess Cupcake with a slice of Orange Butter Cake with Lemon Buttercream Frosting. Likewise, when I want to rediscover for myself or teach my children about richness and humanity, I'll turn to the original folk tales every time.
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15 comments:

On 20/8/07 , Julie said...

Nice post, Luisa. I was raised on a steady diet of dark German fairy tales. They have a power and intensity and truth that Disney will never approach.

 
On 20/8/07 , Adriana Velez said...

I think Jasper is going to be ready for the Grims soon and have been browsing collections for future birthday/Christmas gifts. Are there any collections you especially like?

By the way, Lloyd Alexander (big gasp) was one of my favorite, favorite writers when I was a kid. I loved those books. How fun to see it on your book list -- great memories for me.

 
On 20/8/07 , painted maypole said...

when i was in H.S. I went and read a bunch of Grimm tales, as well as Hans Christian Andersen, and was surprised (pleasantly, at that age) by their darkness. When I lived in LA a friend of mine did a play that was several of the lesser known Grimm tales, and it was very interesting (and decidedly not for children). You make very interesting points about how things have changed for kids today, not only in the stories we tell but in how we live our lives. I think this has a lot to do with our reactions to these older tales for children - including mine to Mary Poppins.

 
On 20/8/07 , Jenna said...

You're so smart. I love to read your blog and agree with you AND learn something new. You and my mom are so alike in so many ways. Just another reason why I love you.

 
On 20/8/07 , dawn said...

Great post. Thanks for the history lesson. When my kids were young (oldest 7) we read over a couple of years, Charles Dickens "A Child's History of England" unabridged. It is wrought with beheadings and death. I read other historical fiction in between which included much the same. I don't think that it is bad for them. Many would disagree, but that was life at the time and it may happen again should there be a war.

I put the butterscotch blondies recipe on my blog.

 
On 20/8/07 , Veronica Mitchell said...

Excellent post.

My oldest girl is very sensitive to adult cruelty in books and movies, so I'm not sure when to introduce stories like Grimm's.

Oddly, though, she seems untroubled by Beatrix Potter stories.

 
On 21/8/07 , Mini Van said...

I somehow feel smarter after reading that post...I need to visit more often!

 
On 21/8/07 , Annette Lyon said...

Yet another example of real vs. fake, with real trumpting the imitation. One of my favorite books as a kid was a Grimm fairytale collection I got for Christmas. I remember huddling by my bedroom door so the hall light could reach the page, reading Rapunzel and Cinderella--and loving the intensity of the real, unvarnished stories I hadn't heard before. I've been mourning the loss of that book for years.

You've inspired me to pull out a big Grimm volume I have upstairs and read it to the kids!

 
On 23/8/07 , Jen said...

Great post, Luisa, and I couldn't agree with you more! I think our children are aware that the world isn't sugar coated, and having them experience more of the nightmarish through fantasies such as unexpurgated Brothers Grimm would be wonderful. I know my DS and some of his friends were fascinated with some of the tales. It's also one of the reasons that I like Cornelia Funke. Have you read her work? Not the Dragon one, but Inkheart, Inkspell or The Thief Lord? Interviews with her are fascinating, too.

 
On 23/8/07 , Kimberly said...

Oh Luisa, that was such a fascinating post!

I spent my elementary school years devouring every book of fairy and folk tales I could get my hands on.

I think I had dreams of showing Disney the error of their ways...

 
On 26/8/07 , Tristi Pinkston said...

Lloyd Alexander -- yes, yes, yes!!

Cake -- did someone say cake? I want some!

You know, people who have a problem with Grimm should turn on the TV and see the shows they are turning out for kids these days. I can't believe how violent they are. Give me a Grimm any day.

 
On 27/8/07 , Julie Wright said...

It frightens me that I'm now salivating . . . Orange Butter Cake with Lemon Buttercream Frosting . . . and then to have someone say butterscotch blondie . . .. I too am a huge lover of the grimm's tales. One of my favorite books on my shelves is an old copy of "household Stories from the Bros Grimm"

 
On 28/8/07 , Syar said...

Great post. I've not yet thumbed my way through all the original Grimm Fairytales, but I've read the truer versions of some in a book I have, which title I can't remember.

But there's this series of graphic novels called Fables written by Bill Willingham that talk about the different characters in fairy tales and how they were driven out of their lands by The Adversary and how they try to live and pass unnoticed in the Mundane world (ours). It's really interesting to see the old fairy tale characters depicted like that, and find out about the ones I don't really know about.

Thought I'd share that with you.

 
On 30/8/07 , Annette Lyon said...

It's been a week and a half since a Novembrance post!

Going through withdrawals . . .

 
On 30/8/07 , Luisa Perkins said...

You are all so good to me. I'm home, and I've (mostly) dug out from all the catch-up.